Film Review: “Zootopia” and the Triumph of Good Storytelling

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a fan of Disney. Admittedly, I rather fell off the wagon with Tarzan and some of the ill-conceived efforts that followed, but I’ve been largely on board since The Princess and the Frog.

Fortunately, Zootopia has reinforced my belief that we are living in a second Disney Renaissance.

The film follows Judy Hopps, an optimistic and ambitious young rabbit who yearns to move away from her small hometown and take up life as a member of the police force in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia. Once there, her fate becomes entangled with that of a huckster fox named Nick and the two of them, in turn, quickly become embroiled in a massive conspiracy designed to upend the precarious peace between predators and prey.

Disney has always had a knack for choosing voice actors who have a magical chemistry, and that is certainly the case with this film. Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White from Once Upon a Time) brings her own particular brand of bubbly optimism to the character of Judy Hopps, while Jason Bateman lends an ironic (almost but not quite hopelessly bitter) twist to Nick. Their obvious chemistry (whether or not they actually recorded in the studio together), makes their relationship utterly compelling and believable.

Speaking of that relationship…I can’t tell you how relieved I was that they didn’t try to force some sort of romance subplot into a film in which it really did not have a place. Judy and Nick function quite well as friends, and it is actually rather nice that they remain friends at the end of the film. It would seem that Disney has finally figured out that the rigorous focus on hetero courtship that was the go-to narrative for so many years isn’t the only thing that kids and parents will go to see, and hopefully this bodes well for the future and for the kinds of films that the studio will be releasing in the coming years.

The humour in this film is both razor-sharp and surprisingly nuanced. While there are many parts of the film that will certainly appeal to children (the scene with the sloth in the DMV is one of those), I would hazard to say that most of the jokes are designed to appeal to people old enough to remember the first Disney Renaissance. In that sense, the film harks back not just to that earlier era of animated greatness but also to a deeper genealogy, one that includes such other

This being a Disney film of the old style, there is of course a moral at the end of the film:  not to judge by the species but instead by the person, er, animal. While this may appear trite to the more jaded among us, in an era in which Trumpist xenophobia and rampant racism seem to be the order of the day, it’s rather pleasant, even exciting, to see a mainstream film send such a positive message of acceptance and good-spiritedness, a film that shows that we are indeed stronger when we band together than when we constantly tear one another down. Further, it’s also nice to see a film in which the heroine doesn’t need a man to help her succeed but instead does so on her own terms.

In the end, though, it is not the technical dexterity of the film that really wowed me (though it does feature some truly magnificent animation). Instead, it is the power–simple and unalloyed–of a good story well-told. In this age of dazzling, eye-popping special effects magic and threadbare storytelling and endless franchises, it’s rather refreshing to see a film that simply stands on its own a storyZootopia doesn’t rewrite any of the things that we know about how narrative and plot should work, but then again it doesn’t have to. Instead, what it wants to do, and what it succeeds at doing, is showing us how pleasurable story-telling can be when it is done capably.

We can only hope–as I certainly do–that Disney will keep up with this trend and continue to wow us with the stories that made us fall in love with the studio in the first place.

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